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Dec 15, 2012

Behind the Scenes at the G20 Street Theater

WTO, G8, G20, the Democratic National Convention, the Republican National Convention, these and other events provide ritual occasions for grassroots protests against the establishment.  And we all know the script.  Kids and cops, colorful street theater and uniformed violence, sensational coverage and claims of de facto censorship.  Last week it was the G20 in Pittsburgh: a massive police presence, storefronts boarded up along the route, not too many protesters, trouble anyway, and the usual photographs walking us through it all. Photographer Jason Andrew is there as well, and his photos provide an opportunity to reflect on how such demonstrations are routinized, and how they are all the more revealing for that.


Many of Jason’s photographs show us what’s happening off stage.  Here three cops in full riot gear apparently are waiting to be deployed.  One can see all the menace that is there, of course, but I also see three players sitting on the sidelines of a football game.  Violence may be as American as cherry pie, but it also can be completely normalized, so much so that it’s hard to muster more than a feeble “go team” on either side.  Or they could be workers on break (as they are), and one is reminded how capital always turns working people against one another.  In any case, they sit in an empty, abstract space and look out of place even there, alienated.

Jason’s photographs often have this alternative tonality from the visual cliches governing so much of the coverage.  Instead of the usual street theater, you see what goes on but often isn’t shown as part of the show: shopkeepers taking precautions, media personnel setting up or otherwise doing their jobs, people waiting for the next act.  Instead of drama, routine; instead of politics becoming intensified, economic practices diffusing dissent; instead of the power of the people, it comes down to money and organization.  Perhaps the protests are a lot like the establishment after all.

You can see that and more in this photo:


This shot of other photographers is something you see in conventional coverage, but there you are not so likely to also see a sign of global capital.  Thus, another disquieting element emerges: the photos each capture an imbalanced intersection of the local and the global.  Cops pose as if football players at a Friday night game, but they’re decked out in the riot gear that is now used by police around the globe.  Photographers gather on a spit of land by a roadway, but when they leave the multinational company will still be broadcasting its message.  Such images capture the pathos–some would say the futility–of taking to the streets in a few blocks of one city when fighting against global actors.

But these images are not about action.  Instead, the photos communicate a basic stillness, a sense of immobility.  This may be thought of as another attempt to avoid the conventional focus on physical confrontation, but it also might be another way of suggesting that, at bottom, the whole show remains all-too-familiar and that nothing will really change.

My point is not to blame the protesters, other photographers, the papers, anyone. Rituals are used to maintain the established order, however, and so we’d do well to think about what these images reveal.  And about how the arc of justice may need to move from the streets to the Web, and to boycotts, micro-loans, urban gardens, labor unions (dare we speak the name) and more.  And to photographs showing us what else might be possible once people stop following the old script.

Photographs by Jason Andrew.  Jason has been covering the G20 protests in Pittsburgh for BAGnewsNotes, and we appreciate his sharing his work with NCN as well.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Death's Dominion in the Middle East

Newspapers are not designed to be pondered at great length, but once in a while you can be stopped in your tracks, stunned, made to sit down slowly and simply stare.  This photograph was one of those moments.


We may be in a hospital or a morgue or some other institutional building being used for that purpose.  But the scene is both literal and mythic: we also are in the anteroom to the underworld. The finality of death could not be more complete, while the contrast with life is, shall we say, asymmetric.  The world of the living is represented by tacky plastic chairs good only for killing time in the barren room, and by the bureaucratic document tucked under the belt on the shroud.  The hard stone walls and floor, the gray tones, and the simple band of ornamentation all could be used in a mausoleum.  The world of the living, it seems, is already outfitted for death.

A similar relationship holds between the modern equipment and ancient ritual.  The corpse could have been wrapped thousands of years ago, while the metal in the gurney is already deteriorating.  Although a 21st century scene–high volume processing, with his papers in order–modernity appears as no more than futile, ugly mechanization and a coordinate process of documentation.  That documentation includes the photograph itself, and so the viewer is given a place equivalent to the empty chairs in the background.  We become spectators of something that would be macabre but for its also being entirely anonymous and abstract.

Believe it or not, the story was about public opinion polling.  Support for Al Qaeda is on the decline across the Middle East, perhaps because of revulsion over indiscriminate suicide bombings.  This photo of one of the victims from a bombing in Pakistan accompanied the story.  It obviously isn’t news, as the attack was in 2007.  It remains a telling image, however.

Look again at the undercarriage of the gurney.  It is worn as as if from centuries of use.  As if there is never time to do anything but pick up the next body, and the next, and the next.  Apparently it is not enough that everyone has to die: there still has to be the killing needed to feed the maw of inhumanity.

Photograph by Chris Schneider/Denver Post, via the Associated Press.

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Sight Gag: "Those Who Cannot Remember the Past …"


Credit: Matson

“Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture.  We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.


Reader Reform of the Fashion Magazine

By Guest Correspondent Aric Mayer

On page 194 of Glamour Magazine’s September issue, in a three-inch by three-inch photograph by Walter Chin, 20 year-old model Lizzi Miller sits on an apple crate in a thong.


She leans forward slightly, her arm covering her breasts, a confident and radiant smile on her face. There is a small roll on her belly and actual curves on her legs and arms. At size 12, Lizzi is the size of the average American woman.

That little belly roll is pure rebellion in the fashion and beauty industry, and it’s the sure reason why this image has had such an incredible effect. Images of Lizzi have been published before, and in each (that I have seen) she is doing what models do, tucking in, tightening, lifting up. Here she appears relaxed and unguarded, and is all the more beautiful for it. Relief and appreciation poured out from readers and can be read in the 1000+ responses posted on Glamour’s website.

Equally significant to the reader response is the extreme rarity of a photograph like this in the context of a fashion magazine. To be clear, this image was intentionally created to have this impact on its viewers. As Glamour Editor in Chief Cindi Leiv says, “We’d commissioned it for a story on feeling comfortable in your skin, and wanted a model who looked like she was.” The image isn’t rare because it can’t be done. It is rare because it is selling something outside of the consumer logic of the fashion and beauty industry.

Professor Jeremy Kees at the Villanova School of Business ran a study demonstrating how the skewing of body norms increases the effectiveness of advertising. In his study women were presented with images of skinny models in a commercial setting and were then tested as to how they would respond. The women exposed to the images of overly thin models tested as feeling worse about themselves, but tested with more positive attitudes about the products being sold. Women exposed to normal sized models had no diminished sense of self, but tested with less favorable attitudes to the products being sold. See the logic at work here?

The stereotypically thin model image serves a very pragmatic purpose in generating an overall climate of desire and consumption that serves the fashion industry at the personal expense of the audience. Lizzi Miller, as she appears on page 194, defeats this basic exchange between the readers and the advertisers, and the reader responses are permeated with a release of the pressure both to conform and to consume. It is also significant to note how far the difference is between talking about body norms and actually showing them.

Here is where it gets really interesting and exciting if you would like to see more of this kind of work. Judging from the comments on the Glamour site, thousands upon thousands of readers do.

The magazine publishing industry is in a state of suspension. Trapped between increasing online competition and falling ad dollars due to the recession, many publications are scrambling to figure out what the future holds.

You have the power to talk back to the magazines through social media. And you have the one thing that they absolutely must have to survive–your attention. That attention is a commodity that is traded by magazines with advertisers and converted into real dollars. If you withhold your attention, magazines fail. If you lavish it, they thrive.

Two things need to happen soon, and they need to be reader generated.

First, there needs to be a reader generated movement to request magazines to give an honest and full disclosure of their internal retouching policies. The audience has a right to know how the images are being manipulated. Every image receives some form of digital manipulation. Retouching disclosure statements would simply explain in specific terms what a magazine allows and doesn’t allow in their image processing.

Readers would be able then to appreciate a magazine with a more clear understanding of what they are looking at. It would also be a commitment from the magazine to its readers to work within a set of self-described limits. If even just a few major magazines made a point of communicating their limits to their readers, it would set a precedent in the industry with far reaching implications.

The second thing that needs to happen is going to sound crazy. There needs to be reader-generated campaigns to raise magazine subscription rates.

I realize that this seems counter-intuitive, but here is how it works. If you are buying subscriptions on the cheap, the only hope magazines have to make money is from advertisers by selling your attention as a commodity. After all, you aren’t really paying for the magazine. But if you are willing to pay more, suddenly you, the reader are starting to pay for the content and the magazine has to work for you, not the advertisers. Remember Kees’ study? If you aren’t going to pay for those pages, advertisers will, and it will serve their purposes, not yours.

This post is adapted from Confessions of a Bone Saw Artist by Aric Mayer


Lynsey Addario and the Weight of History

Yesterday the MacArthur Foundation announced the selection of the MacArthur Fellows for 2009.  The recipients of this so-called “genius award” included Lynsey Addario, a photojournalist based in Istanbul, Turkey.  Addario’s portfolio includes work from the Middle East, Africa, India, and elsewhere.  I won’t pretend to summarize her work, but she is adept at exposing how seemingly exotic cultures are but habitats where people contend with the burdens of ordinary life, and how individuals can be raised, trapped, and killed within worlds not of their own making.


Some of her photographs capture something else as well: what might be called the weight of history.  This picture or a soldier and woman in Darfur provides a vivid example.  The image is striking for several reasons, including the strong colors against an austere background, the woman’s gesture of self-protection, and her placement within the implicit tryptych of  man, woman, equipment.  She is the center of the photograph, and might be seen as the primary reason for the other two elements of this social whole; at the same time, she provides only a temporary separation between the man and his weapons, and so her vulnerability is all the more telling.

The genius of the the photo, however, comes from the the downward slump of his head and hers.  Then seem pulled down, as if subject not only to the gravity weighing down the equipment but also to some other, terrible, collective pressure.  Like gravity, it can’t be seen, but it is a human rather than a merely physical force.  Perhaps their retail goods of basketball jersey and consumer tote cue our sense that their collective burden is social and psychological and not just the fatigue of nomadic life.  Like the dust in the sky, a crushing fate seems to be gathering, weighing them down, sure to grind them under as help never arrives.


That weight bears down wherever people are abandoned to war, poverty, and other political disasters.  It can beat down like the desert sun or suffocate like a sandstorm, but it is sure to wear away the soul.  Here we see it again, this time in the stooped, tired gait of a policeman in Baghdad.  He appears young but is already aged in his bones, sagging in the joints, made dumb by the stupid routines of ritualized predation and continuing wastage.  He does what he can–looking around, walking his beat, trying to stay alive–but he’s already carrying too much to escape.

The weight of history is so heavy for two reasons.  One is that some people have to carry so much of it.  The other is that it is made up of all the mistakes, unintended consequences, vile decisions, vicious acts, and–above all–all the indifference of everyone else.

Photographs by Lynsey Addario.

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The Bag Lady Wears Prada

I admittedly know very little about the ultra chic world of haute couture, but I nevertheless was struck dumb by a recent story in the NYT which reported that the high fashion magazine W had published a 28 page photo spread animated by the theme of “homeless chic.” It has been over a week now and I still find myself somewhat speechless.


The world of high fashion is a fantasy world and I’m fine with that. We all have fantasies—equipment for living—that help us to buffer the demands and stresses of everyday life; and truth to tell, human existence in general would be poorer without the imagination that fuels and is in turn fueled by the world of fantasy. There is a little bit of Walter Mitty in all of us, and it’s a good thing too. But, of course, there are limits. Sometimes those limits are driven by material and objective realities—either WMD existed in Iraq or they did not—and sometimes they are driven by a moral sensibility—either claims to racial superiority are socially acceptable or they are not. And sometimes both. But in any case, when our fantasy life exceeds the common sense—and more, when it takes advantage of the less fortunate or puts others at risk—we need to step back and question the implications of the world we imagine.

The photograph above is the eighth of fourteen images that appeared under the title Paper Bag Princess. It shows an “urban waif … all wrapped up in designer wear—and wares.” More specifically she appears to be asleep in an alleyway and the caption tells us that she is wearing a Prada wool coat and belt, Chanel arm warmers, and Miu Miu socks. But of course, she is wearing more than just designer clothes. Her stylish dress, which seductively reveals her skinny, alabaster thighs, is made from a white paper shopping bag that sports the Prada logo. And more, she has “fashioned” a bed and pillow out of five or six other similar shopping bags. Apparently relegated to sleeping in a back street alley, she is nevertheless stylish. Who says the homeless and forsaken can’t live in fashionable comfort!

The photograph—and indeed the entire photo spread—is morally callous. Unlike other attempts in the world of fashion and elsewhere to romanticize the homeless, casting them in various registers as noble or tragic figures, or in some instances as the eccentric and lovable bag lady, here the representation is a visual irony that operates at an odd and disconcerting intersection between empathy and disgust, invoking an affect—“homeless chic”—that conflates the frivolous with the grotesque. What makes it especially problematic is how it reduces homelessness to what in the title of the layout it calls “street style,” as if living on the street was an entirely and freely chosen identity or mode of being; operationalizes that street style in terms of our cultural stereotype of the “waif”; and then visually mocks the stereotype as if its representation bears little or no moral consequence.

One can only wonder what is really being peddled here. Surely not clothing. In the 1980s Rosalyn Carter gave an interview in which she accounted for the public adoration of then President Reagan by noting that “he makes us feel comfortable with our prejudices.” In no small measure this photo layout seems to be doing something similar as it invites the audience that might identify with the world of high fashion to don the fantasy that homelessness is a cosmetic problem that can be solved with just the right sense of style and vogue.

Would ‘twer that it were true.

Photo Credits: Craig McDean/W Magazine


Sight Gag: English as a Second Language?


Credit: All Hat No Cattle

“Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture.  We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.


Exposing the Inner Woman at Fashion Week

It’s Fashion Week in New York, and more people than would admit to it are looking to see what bizarre costumes are being displayed this year.  Most will never be seen again, of course, and good thing, too.  And few of us would assume that the staged excess of runway culture could reveal much about the conditions of ordinary life.  But the fashion shows, like any other theater, can expose what might be overlooked in our more practical activities.

Photographic coverage of the shows often tries to capture more than the fashions themselves, and perhaps more so this year when so many of the photos are coming from backstage.  Too many of those are still contrived (especially in the New York Times series in the online Style section), but others catch more than the producers might want to show.


Elegant, yes; happy, not so much.  One feature of this year’s photography is that there are a number of shots that suggest the other side of a model’s life: boredom, loneliness, and, most of all, realizing that you, as opposed to your look, are truly irrelevant.  This forlorn waif seems to have learned that lesson all too well.  She is surrounded by people who are intensely, passionately focused on her appearance while being completely oblivious to her.  They could just as well be working on a mannequin.


This photo grabs me for the same reasons and more.  There is a magical quality to the image, as if she were coming to life out of a row of inanimate figures.  The truth may be just the opposite: she is being transformed into something inanimate, the line of identical models whose combined presence will wow the crowd precisely because, as in any fashion show, they have become interchangeable objects.  This girl looks like she’s had a hard life anyway, and now she’s on the verge of disappearing.  She could be appealing to someone to help her escape, but it’s more likely a last look back before she accepts her fate.


Perhaps it’s because she’s even younger than the others, but it could be the drugged expression: this could be a shot from one of those sick horror movies where teens are tortured and dismembered before they die.   Again, others work intently on her exterior while, somewhere inside, a person sinks into oblivion.  In a few more years, she can audition for another remake of the Stepford Wives, a role she already models.


Or it could come to this.  A remarkable image, as she could be anything from a space alien to a woman religious.  Or, combining both, the Bene Gesserit from Dune.  Somehow the science fiction analogies seem stronger: perhaps it’s the face, which looks like it came out of a labratory for making replicants.  (This would be the basic stock prior to individual customization.)  Either way, she still has the hunted look of someone who lives inside a body that has to be styled for others.  As with many other women trapped by fashion, you hope she might be able to find an unlocked door somewhere and slip away into an easier life.

Photographs by Erin Baiano/New York Times, Seth Wenig/AP, Jennifer Altman/New York Times, Greg Scaffidi/New York Times.


The Practice of Domination in Everyday Life

Amidst the many images of hostility, conflict, and destruction that come out of the occupied territories in Palestine, this one is truly shocking.


The photo appeared on page A8 of the morning edition of the New York Times with this caption: “Tinderbox In Hebron, a Jewish settler threw wine at a Palestinian woman.  The city is a center of tensions between settlers and Palestinians.”  The complete set of images, which included a photo on page 1 of an Israeli child being bathed and three other photos on page 8 labeled “Veneration,” “Remembrance,” and “Preparation,” clearly favored the Israeli settlers.  Even so, the photo above gives the lie to the myth of taming the frontier in the Holy Land.

But why does it shock?  He is not hitting her, and surely spraying her is less of a crime than, say, razing a house with a military bulldozer.   Or blowing up a bus with a suicide bomber.  Since there is violence enough on both sides, why make so much of a minor incident of teenage insolence?

I think that there are at least three reasons for the photograph’s impact.  One is that it reveals what is rarely shown: the small acts of personal viciousness and humiliation that make up the practice of domination in an occupied land.  Second, it is clear that both the boy’s aggression and the woman’s protective reaction are often-practiced, habitual responses.  Were he taunting an older woman for the first time, he would be likely to look much more ragged, uncoordinated, and either furtive or overly demonstrative.  Instead, he could be a figure out of Whitman: throwing his weight around without breaking stride, a figure of youthful grace on the city street.  Likewise, she isn’t being caught by surprise.  Her head is already turned, her body hunched against the impending blow.  She’s been through this before, and she’s learned that direct confrontation is not an option.  This may be her neighborhood, but it’s his street.

The third dimension of the photograph’s power derives from its capacity for analogy.  Look at the woman’s coat and hat, and at the Star of David scrawled on the storefront; she could be in the Warsaw ghetto, and all it takes is a change of costume to see him as a German soldier.   Or they could be an African-American woman and a young white teenager in the Jim Crow South, or any other tableau that depicts the small details of domination.  One picture isn’t enough to nail down such comparisons, but it should make you think of them.

Photograph by Rina Castelnuovo/The New York Times.  The accompanying story is here.  Note that the caption at the online slide show is less vague than in the paper edition: “A settler tosses wine at a Palestinian woman on Shuhada Street in Hebron. The approach of some settlers towards neighboring Palestinians, especially around Nablus in the north and Hebron in the south, has often been one of contempt and violence.”

Update: Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


The Elderly Voter: More Health Insurance Than Sense?

In contrast to the many images of right wing demonstrators disrupting town hall meetings, this photograph of elderly citizens listening to a discussion of national health care appears to be a model of thoughtful deliberation.


They are old, yes, but not incapacitated.  Indeed, this is just what an audience is supposed to do at a democratic forum: listen carefully.  The individuals here appear by turn skeptical, reflective, and (in the background) critical, and in every case attentive.  Isn’t this what everyone should be doing when thinking about the momentous questions of whether and how to reform health care?

Well, yes and no.  The problem is that, as a group, the elderly are tilting against reform, despite not being out of synch with the rest of the electorate on  other issues.  But is that a problem?  Obviously not if you oppose reform, but otherwise it is indicative of several ironies within the health care debate and at least one paradox within democracy itself.

Needless to say, all of the elderly have the government health insurance that some of them would deny their fellow citizens.  It’s called Medicare and not “the public option” or “socialized medicine” or “government interference in the doctor-patient relationship,” but it’s all of those things–and a good thing, too.  And, of course, the vast majority of those who have it like it and assume that they are entitled to it.  Nor do many of them know that those politicians and organizations that oppose the current reforms also opposed Medicare.  Most tellingly, this group watches more TV news than other voters (something that oddly is often described as being “more informed”), and some of them go so far as to claim that they oppose reform because then don’t want the government involved with Medicare.

A more vexing problem is that, because democracy depends on the secret ballot and aggregated decisions, any voter can behave with a very skewed sense of responsibility.  One can vote against government benefits while remaining assured that you will continue to receive government benefits.  So it is that Red States that vote against “big government” receive more government money than they spend in taxes.   Obviously, if the state’s net take was dependent on the political philosophy it endorsed, voters might think twice about their decisions; but, of course, they don’t have to.   Likewise, if those elderly voting against the public option had to give up their public health care, they might think differently, but that’s not an option.  This disconnect between political rhetoric and government policy has become second nature to all of us.  We accept that politicians can rail against the government while securing government contracts and services for the home district, and that you don’t have to be held personally responsible for your vote.

In other areas of life this would be seen as rank hypocrisy.  Imagine saying that everyone in the family has to eat vegetarian, except me; or that everyone in the congregation ought to pledge, except me; or that everyone in the office has to observe the dress code, except me.  Whereas in private life we take it for granted that pronouncements and actions should be consistent, democracy seems to make hypocrisy a virtue.  What is not readily acknowledged is that this hypocrisy is characteristic not merely of politicians, but of the voters as well.

Paradoxes exist for a reason, and this one probably leads to good outcomes as well.  What is needed, at least in the hear term, is more attentiveness and more imagination.  Look again at the photograph above.  One can see democratic deliberation, and also the frailty and mortality that is the core of our human condition.  One can see, in other words, not only a civic habit but also the fundamental purpose of government.

Note also how each of the individuals is in a defensive posture.  They are protective of themselves, and understandably so.  And keep in mind that none of the press reports defines the elderly in terms of experience or wisdom, but only in terms of the demographic power at the polls.  Given the lack of respect typical of a traditional society, they know that they have to mobilize according to shared interests.

What they, and we, must understand is that self interest can only be fully realized by taking care of others.  From that perspective, the problem is not that the elderly are in the picture, but that they are solely among themselves.  The better understanding will come not by carefully addressing their problems, but by putting those problems in a wider context, one that is at least wide enough to make the high costs of hypocrisy apparent to all.

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

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